One way to get past that seasonal “holiday movie phobia” thing more than a few of us suffer from is to throw in some Italian-Americans, as writer-director Robert Tinnell does with “Feast of the Seven Fishes.”
Make it a period piece, nostalgic for the days when a lot of your relatives were World War II vets, and one was at D-Day.
Make’em cook, you know, the “seven fishes” of this Italian Catholic Christmas Eve dinner tradition — bacaloa, smelt, whiting, shrimp, oysters, eel and calamari.
Let’em grab each other by the neck, for hugs and brother-on-brother wrestling fights.
Give’em plenty of sassy banter, throw-away lines that are the garlic of any dishy Italian-American comedy.
“What am I, Kojak?”
“You’re an idiot. Not your fault. You take after Uncle Carmine’s side of the gene pool!”
“Very funny. Tell me when to laugh!”
A little wistful romance, a touch of leaving the cozy family nest, all set against a holiday feast — prepping for it, cooking it, bickering, chasing the womenfolk out of the kitchen — that’s a winning combo for a holiday rom-com.
No low-hanging comic fruit is left unplucked in this sentimental easy-going and at times adorable entry in the seasonal comedy onslaught.
“On Christmas Eve in this town, EVERYbody is Italian. Or thinks they are!”
Tony Oliverio (Skyler Gisondo of “Booksmart”) is college age, but stuck at home in Greentown, West Virginia (actually Rivesville and Fairmont, West Virginia). He’s a painter who works in the family meat market his parents run. No chance of accepting admission to a “pretty good art school” in Pittsburgh.
It’s 1983 and his big Italian family is one generation removed from working in the coal mines. They’ll never go for anything as seemingly frivolous as “art school.”
He’s just broken up with his girlfriend since elementary school, and Katie (Addison Timlin), isn’t taking it well.
Cousin Angelo (Andrew Schultz) reminds him that “the chicks that went away to college, the ones we NEVER get to see? They’re back…and horny for the holidays!” That’s how Tony meets Beth (winsome Madison Iseman of the “Goosebumps” movies), a pretty blonde coed who went straight from prep school to the Ivy League.
It being 1983, Beth is resisting her parents’ push toward making more concrete plans with rich preppie Prentice (Allen Williamson), who’d rather be skiing this holiday.
Beth and Prentice, or Beth and Tony? If it’s meant to be, it’s meant to be, right? Que sera sera and all that.
There’s a mouth-watering comic montage of fish cooking as Tony explains the day’s cuisine to Beth.
But a comedy like this lives or dies on its supporting characters and the supporting cast you get to play them, and “Feast of the Seven Fishes” has a terrific one. Sure, they’re playing “types” — the lazy great uncle, the lazy little brother, the grousing patriarch (Paul Ben-Victor of TV’s “Goliath,” shining in a rare comic turn), the gambling, hustling “businessman” brother, given a “Paisano!” twinkle by Joe Pantoliano.
The grumpy great-grandmother (Lynn Cohen) doesn’t approve of the pretty blonde non-Catholic. Beth, one and all agree — when they switch to Italian when talking about her in front of her — is a “Mangia-cake,” a cake-eater. Rich. And the Oliverios? “Not OUR kind of people” Beth’s mother reminds her.
Naturally, she’s dragged into the holiday feast, old men in their t-shirts peeling shrimp, stuffing calamari and frying bacaloa.
Naturally, everybody they know drops by, including Juke (Josh Helman), a bookish, bespectacled philosopher/psychoanalyst who just happens to be a mechanic. “Feast of the Seven Fishes” has a little bit of every family holiday comedy about it, a touch of “Big Night” thanks to the food, and in this one character — Juke — a hint of “Diner.”
Most of the players have their moment or two, but none rings more true than Katie’s, a young woman devastated by her break-up, acting-out to try and win him back — adrift.
“I didn’t just lose Tony. I lost the whole family!”
I can’t stress enough how undemanding, easy-going, predictable and familiar this comedy is. Nor can I stress enough how well its tried-and-true ingredients blend, how much it feels grounded in a place and the people there.
Call “Feast of the Seven Fishes” what it is, Christmas comedy comfort food. And bring your appetite.
MPAA Rating: Unrated, with a little fisticuffs, a little pot, a little profanity
Cast: Skyler Gisondo, Madison Iseman, Josh Helman, Paul Ben-Victor, Lynn Cohen, Addison Timlin, Jessica Darrow and Joe Pantoliano
Credits: Written and directed by Robert Tinnell. A Shout! Factory release.
Running time: 1:37